Barry Jones has lived with depersonalisation and derealisation since early childhood. The Book of Niall is his attempt to explain what it means to suffer from these twin disorders. By structuring the book as a graphic novel he brings to vivid life the anguish of having to act in what is regarded as an acceptable way when in the company of others, to stick to the script that is his day to day life. Veering off course can lead to car crash moments that also affect his loved ones and work colleagues. Mental health issues do not just affect the patient, but better understanding of what is being experienced can help all understand, and make allowances for, the high cost of social compliance.
The protagonist of the story is Niall Adams, a Hollywood film star best known for a series of superhero movies in which he stars as the muscular main character, Logos. Niall has a beautiful girlfriend, Kristen, who is also an actor but yet to catch her big break. His manager is Achim, a man addicted to dating a string of interchangeable young women he chooses from online escort sites.
In the opening scenes we learn that Niall has been nominated for a top acting award. Achim has worked hard – and made carefully placed investments – to achieve this accolade for his client but Niall proves reluctant to play the publicity game expected and required. Kirsten has her own good news to impart having landed a contract to be the face of a range of beauty products in a national advertising campaign. Niall struggles to offer her the excited congratulations she expects. While it is recognised that Niall has issues, and support is offered, he must, if he wishes to continue as a successful actor, go through the motions demanded by fickle fans and the entertainment industry. This may be his job but he is growing increasingly disillusioned, his mental health disorders fracturing what he can perceive as reality.
After some consideration, Niall agrees to attend the award ceremony where he makes a speech that goes viral. This leads to a slot on a popular chat show where he meets a man with an outlook that challenges popular perceptions.
“I’ve always liked tattoos but never had the conviction to put something on my skin permanently.”
“Don’t use that word – ‘permanent’. Think about it, are you permanent?”
Through all of this Niall is finding himself growing further detached from the persona others can see – the well known and popular actor. Kristen does her best to be there for him but has her own career, potentially being on the cusp of all she has worked towards.
The artwork throughout was created by the author who spent two years teaching himself how to draw for this project. It is very well done. Clever use is made of monochrome and colour, of standard frames and full page collages. What comes across clearly is the pain of the protagonist as he forces himself to live through an unreality he increasingly views from a detached void.
A particularly memorable scene involves Niall’s interaction with a homeless – no, ‘houseless’ – man. The suggestion is that we are all acting, everyday, that other people can only see what is ultimately a performance.
“And my story? Your story… it’s all one story. Question is, are you a character in my story… or am I a character in yours?”
Niall starts to question everything in his life and what the point of it all is. The crisis this leads to then fractures the story. A magician emerges claiming to be the author – the fourth wall is broken. The disorders Niall lives with are now what the reader is experiencing in keeping track of the character’s trajectory. Will the denouement follow the path of the optimist or pessimist?
Whichever ending the reader chooses, this remains a powerful depiction of how unreal much of what is accepted as normal behaviour is when questioned – the illusion of success being at most transitory. To live detached from oneself, however, is to remain unable to gain pleasure from achievements, even if momentary, suppressing what may be offered and enjoyed with friends and loved ones. Acting as expected may feel false but can be a demonstration of love.
An important and thought provoking book but also one that tells a memorable story. Unfamiliar as I am with graphic novels, the extra dimension added by the artwork in this fine example of the genre makes me want to read more.
My copy of this book was provided gratis.